Shirow Masamune, 1989-1997 [Frederick L. Schodt and Toren Smith, 2009, 2010]
While we’re on the subject of Japanese-inspired cyberpunk (and isn’t it all, really), it seems the sensible thing to do is to head back to one of the ur-examples of the genre. Big hair, massive shoulder pads, cranial jacks, and high-legged swimsuits worn as daywear: late-eighties SF in a single sentence, ladies and gentlemen.
I should make it clear at this point that we’ll be primarily discussing the first of these books (though for what it’s worth I’m aware that there’s a pretty well received movie and a TV series or two, none of which I’ve seen). The second, Man-Machine Interface, is a nominal sequel and is an appalling mess of a thing that would be downright offensive were it not so utterly fucking tedious. By way of some sort of justification for this omission, I give you the panel below, which is one of the least incomprehensibly ridiculous in the book –
So we’ll be ignoring that one, then.
Ghost in the Shell’s original series ran from 1989-1990 and the art must be described as ‘of its time’. It’s pretty frantic and – despite all the gratuitous crotch shots, the ridiculous knicker-wearing nurses, and the frankly implausible mammary physics – is a curiously sexless thing. Apparently a couple of pages of this edition were exorcised during translation on account of a sex scene, but even so what comes through is the aggressively asexual nature of all that tits and ass.
Our heroine is Major Motoko Kusanagi, the cyborg commander of an elite counter-terroist-cybercrime Special Forces unit, and as pretty much the only female character in the book she is objectified remorselessly. I realize the observation that manga has issues with female representation is a bit like noting that getting shot in the face must sting a bit, but I’m still relatively new to this and what’s surprising to me is just how unsexy it all is. Motoko and the occasional fuckbots who comprise most of the other depictions of women possess as much allure as an unclothed shop-window mannequin. This is the reductio ad absurdum of female objectification, as women are rendered with all the improbably featureless physicality of a factory-nude Barbie doll; as disposable commodities to be observed and toyed with, but not genuinely interacted with on what must surely be the most basic of human levels. I get that there’s a certain element of wish-fulfillment here, but who’d wish for this? Who has a sexual fantasy devoid of sex organs and thus actual sex? This is a rhetorical question, of course, because the well-worn answer is, ‘People who find genuine female sexuality threatening’.
Obviously I’ve searched for the censored pages on the internet, and I’d be lying if I said they were anything to get worked up about (because cartoon porn, seriously?) but I’d argue that their removal is more offensive than their inclusion would have been. At least in the original Motoko got to use her sexyparts for actual sexytimes, in the censored version she’s been both graphically and narratively neutered; her moronically over-exaggerated secondary sexual characteristics are thus wholly gratuitous, serving absolutely no purpose other than as objects for the male-gaze. If you’re going to give a character some sort of outstanding attributes then they should at least get to use them. Chekov’s Genital, if you like.
This is all a bit of a shame, because the rest of the stuff here (in the first book, remember, the first) is pretty damn good. When I said the art was ‘frantic’ that wasn’t a pejorative; when it works, which is more often than not, there’s an undeniable sense of movement and urgency, and the occasional stiller sections stand as archetypal examples of how cyberpunk should be done. The story itself runs along smoothly with just enough in the way of twists and turns to justify the philosophical musings on identity and the nature of self that appear a touch abruptly in the final couple of chapters, and throughout it all there’s a palpable sense of fun. Admittedly this often leads to slightly jarring tonal mismatches but at least it helps things trip along at a reasonable pace without getting too bogged down in weightier musings. It’s just disappointing that it’s all so inseparable from the by-now wearingly familiar tropes of otaku-insecurity, mummy-issues, and misogyny. And then it gets worse…